Formative Assessments: Our Compass for Understanding Affective, Cognitive, and Physical Aspects of Information Search Processes

Original photo by Buffy Hamilton
Original photo by Buffy Hamilton

I’m currently working with a section of American Literature/Composition students who have been asked to look at a historical or current event that embodies a degree of hysteria or abuse of power and compare that to the hysteria or abuse of power in the play The Crucible.   This research task is a fairly typical high school assignment for this text and course.  Initially, the teacher wanted me to cover five major areas of research in one class period in lecture format with no hands-on learning activities because she initially thought they had a greater degree of prior knowledge.   However, after a series of email conversations, we worked out a series of learning experiences to implement this week to address student learning needs in a richer and more meaningful way for students.   As many of you know, these collaborative conversations are sometimes really difficult and uncomfortable to broach, especially when you are new to a school or don’t know a teacher very well as you want to be respectful yet honest when you realize a particular request for instruction might not be realistic or effective for students.    I also try to remember that many teachers have never had the experience of working with a school librarian who is genuinely interested in being a co-teacher and instructional designer, so they might not want to ask much of you simply because they’ve never had that kind of expectation or instructional services.

We began our efforts earlier this week by introducing the students to specific databases and search tools in GALILEO through our project LibGuide.  We also talked briefly about some basic search features and tips for each of the databases.  I also showed students how to sign up for our EasyBib account and how to export potential sources to their EasyBib project bibliography.  In an ideal world, I would not attempt to cover so much territory in one session, especially with students who have little experience using databases, but when forging new collaborative partnerships with faculty, it often takes time to establish the trust and rapport needed to jointly fine-tune project pacing and the instructional design process.  It is also a regular challenge many school librarians face as we try to balance our desire to go deep with hands-on learning activities and time to engage in inquiry while respecting the pressures and time constraints classroom teachers face with pacing calendars, common assessments, and other aspects of modern classroom life.

Yesterday we formed “Birds of Feather” groups by research interest.   Topic areas/groups included McCarthyism, post 9/11 racial profiling, Japanese Internment Camps, and then “undecided” for students who were still exploring.   I created topic placeholders for each table to make it easier for students to self-form groups because I wanted them to work together to talk about search terms and databases they were trying so that they could hopefully tap into the power of collaborative thinking.   My plan was for them to collaborate as searchers, to work on their search maps, and then complete a group debrief/”ticket out the door” assessment we’d do with big sticky pads (see below).

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Teens being teens, though, some decided to sit with friends rather than by topic; as a result, we lost a little instructional time because the teacher wanted to get them in the “like” groups at the beginning of the period before we proceeded any further.   Once everyone was settled in, though, we jumped into the day’s agenda:  I reminded them how to get back to the LibGuide (and they also had a set of notes/graphic organizer I had provided the day earlier to help them as well) and did a brief introduction to search mapping.    I did not take as much time as I normally would because:

1.  We had already lost about 10 minutes of class.
2.  I originally thought this might be an optional activity,  but after observing their initial seach efforts on Tuesday, I realized they needed this form of scaffolding to help them navigate the databases with some deliberation and intention.

I told the students I would collect their maps and whatever progress they had made as their ticket out the door and provide feedback the next day.  They then set about searching the databases and beginning their search maps; the teacher and I walked about providing feedback and answering questions with individual students and small groups. This was also a great opportunity to just observe and see what students were doing and how they might be thinking. Toward the end of the class period, I asked students to flip their maps over and complete the simple and fast self-assessment below:

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I collected their maps at the end of class; this morning, I read through their work as well as their self-assessment reflections for about 90 minutes taking time to provide brief written comments and making notes about points of confusion and questions.  By looking at this simple self-assessment, I was able to see patterns of misunderstanding or difficulty while noting specific questions to address/answer.   In particular, I could see that students were struggling with:

  1.  Slowing down the process and doing pre-search with more intention as they worked with the search mapping process (new for all students).  This “slowing down” process  also included reading beyond skimming and scanning.   I call this “doing the work”; I recommend this brief but terrific post by Pegasus Librarian on this challenge of reading and search; also see her brilliant post Information Literacy in a Utopian High School.
  2.  Working through informational text—-some were having difficulty pulling out the big ideas, so I pulled together some resources from Cris Tovani and Stephanie Harvey on text annotation (this is not new or unfamiliar territory!).  I also decided to create a template for a Venn diagram to help students visualize their big ideas since the teacher had suggested that to some students yesterday, and it seemed to help them make sense of the research task (another area that I soon realized later in the day was a clear area of misunderstanding for some)
  3. How to deal with dead-ends with search terms and understanding that one database would not be enough for this research task as well as additional strategies for search terms specific to databases.

By looking at the students’ work, I could provide some specific written feedback and help resources (either in print format that I attached to their maps and/or as resources I added to the LibGuide this morning).

When students arrived today, we returned their maps.  I then shared how I had looked at their work and the three big areas of concern/patterns of response; I also showed them resources added to the LibGuide (handouts, graphic organizers, how to videos, website links) to help them negotiate those challenges.

I also tried to allay their uncertainty and discomfort by talking about the fact that search is often just difficult and takes a great deal of reading, browsing, and persistence in trying different strategies.   We also talked about “digging in”, making sure our conversation with peers was constructive, and advocating for ourselves by asking questions and choosing a different seat if the current workspace was too distracting.  Last but not least, we celebrated the exemplary search maps from Day 1, and I showed them where they could download or print a copy of these model search maps (which of course are still in progress) on the LibGuide.

The class was then given the rest of the period to continue their presearch/search mapping , and they were encouraged to seek help from both me and the teacher.  She circulated about and answered content related questions for the research task while I set up an area where students could come and do 1:1 or small group conferencing with me, an activity that was very insightful for me as well as the students.    These mini-conference/conversations were very revealing and helped me see that some students just needed verbal reinforcement of what to do while others clearly didn’t understand the research task at all.  Other students needed a visual graphic organizer to unpack the research task (see this simple Venn diagram I was inspired to create for the students after hearing Ms. Sidell, their teacher, suggest it to a student yesterday).

Sidell Venn Diagram

It was also a great opportunity to ask students about what they had learned in their initial reading yesterday, and that opened up honest yet encouraging conversations with individual students about taking time to actually read the texts and the importance of reading in developing search vocabulary and ideas for interpretation and discussion in their papers.

These two methods of formative assessment in 24 hours reminded me to look to the work of Carol Kuhlthau to help me contextualize much of what I was seeing and  hearing from the students.    Her Information Search Process model underscores the affective aspect of information seeking behaviors and reminds us that we need to help students acknowledge, honor, and own the feelings of confusion, doubt, and frustration that can come with the messiness of Initiation and Exploration.  Teachers, students, and librarians can embrace the discomfort and leverage these teachable moments as opportunities to help students hone and grow their strategy toolkit that will ultimately help them develop persistence and resilience in the face of challenging information seeking tasks.  I highly recommend you read these three posts from my colleagues and fellow practitioners Heather Hersey, Marci Zane, Meg Donhauser, and Cathy Stutzman:

As many of you know, working through these rough patches is often a healthy mix of tough love and patient TLC with a generous helping of practical strategies for learners.  By engaging in formative assessment in various formats early in the inquiry process, I stay grounded and can better understand the stumbling blocks for the students.   It also helps me to unpack what might initially be seen as negative behavior such as resistance or even hostility when in reality, that behavior is camouflaging sincere student distress and fear, especially if they have little experience in negotiating challenging or difficult academic endeavors.  Consequently, I’m then better positioned to offer practical coaching and help rather than getting stuck in the weeds of frustration that can spring up as quickly for us as it does the students.    These formative assessments also give us evidence and guideposts for adjusting instruction, something that is particularly important when we are helping the classroom teacher think through the kinds of learning activities students need and how to appropriately pace them by being responsive to student needs.

How are you engaging in formative assessment?  Where does this intersect with Kuhlthau’s ISP for you, and how do you help students and teachers work through the messy and uncomfortable chaos that is in inherent in search and information seeking tasks?  How do you help frame the feelings of uncertainty and confusion in a constructive and positive light?

Designing Successful Learning Structures for Literature Circles with Sarah Rust

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While literature circles are not a new concept, teachers are always looking for strategies to help students successfully interact and develop sustained conversations about texts.   If you are thinking about literature circles for any grade level or subject area, you will want to listen to my interview with Language Arts teacher Sarah Rust as she takes us through her planning and design process with students:

Sample Conversations:

Scenes from a Literature Circle Meeting in the NHS Learning Studio:

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Bridge to Presearch and Growing Student Understandings: Connect, Extend, Challenge

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One of our ongoing goals this academic year as instructional designers has been framing the importance of process in research projects and emphasizing the frontloading of presearch experiences as a critical point of helping students select and narrow a topic of authentic interest.  As we tried to collaborate with our 11th Language Arts teachers earlier this semester, Jennifer and I wanted to experiment with the learning structure Connect, Extend, Challenge to see if we could nudge student thinking about the overarching research theme of The American Dream. We decided to do a modified written conversation read and discussion starter that incorporated Connect, Extend, and Challenge.  We were able to schedule Linda Katz’s two classes for the activity and felt they would be a great group to pilot our first efforts since they had spent some class time discussing and brainstorming as a group what they felt The American Dream meant and individuals or events that might represent some aspect of it.  Below is their initial conceptualization:

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After seeing their list, Jen and I wondered if we could use the activity to introduce some contemporary issues related to The American Dream through the critical lenses of socioeconomics, class, race, and gender to push their thinking beyond contemporary individuals and to broaden their event/issue menu from the initial list they developed.  In our minds, we thought the activity would help them focus on a timely issue and hopefully be inspired to inquire about it.  It took me about a day to find articles I felt were a right fit, and I organized them into eight folders (one for each table).  Each folder contained two sets of articles:

  • A common set of readings that usually was an overview of a working definition and explanation of The American Dream.  These were designed to be quick reads that each group member would read (I envisioned four students per table, so I had four copies of the common read in the folder); they all came from our Gale and EBSCO databases.
  • A set of four different articles so that each group member would have a different article to read.

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Our game plan was for the students to have 10-12 minutes to read the articles; they would then discuss/share out their readings and reactions to those readings. We then wanted them to collaboratively respond to the prompts for Connect, Think, and Extend so that they could draw on the prior knowledge they had started building in the classroom but hopefully grow or expand through the group readings.  Each group would then share their responses on a large sticky note before rotating to another table and set of readings for a second round.  On the day of the activity, Jen reviewed the protocols and helped facilitate the activity; we tried to reinforce the conversation protocols by taping the guidelines on each table.

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The outcomes were a bit mixed.  Quite a few students discovered new information and some different directions for researching The American Dream and contextualizing it from a modern perspective.  Some even expressed surprise, especially around statistics and data, about what they read in the articles.  We were impressed some students developed their own coding system while annotating the articles to tie directly into the thinking/learning structure of connect, extend, and challenge.

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While Jen and I were happy to have put these topics and issues on the students’ radar, many still chose to go with their original focus on how an individual embodied an aspect of The American Dream; others, in the spirit of the research assignment, picked 1-2 concepts from the list and then researched multiple events and/or persons that they thought represented their chosen aspects of The American Dream.  We realized that some students would have benefited from the activity taking place over two days so that they could have had more time to:

1.  Read (the articles were of varying length and complexity, and we noticed some students needed more time to engage with the text).

2.  Share as a small group and then craft their collaborative responses to really go deeper with the connecting, extending, and challenging aspects of the activity.

3.  Share out as a large group and then help students think through the connections of what they had read to their initial class-generated list as well as new possibilities for inquiry.  Dr. Katz agreed that the extra time and the chance for a large group discussion would have been more optimal.

Now that we’ve tried the activity, we know that we might want to build in a longer or extended activity time window to help students immerse themselves in the texts, the conversations, and thinking without feeling rushed.  Jen and I  also realized that because the final details of the research assignment didn’t come together in the original time frame any of us (media staff as well as 11th Language Arts) anticipated, we were not cognizant that the teachers were focusing more on students looking at different issues or individuals through one or more of those class generated aspects of The American Dream.  While the activity did not result in our (Jen and I) goal of generating enough excitement to shift the research focus to a specific present day issue and a deep dive into how that issue related to the viability of The American Dream, hopefully from a critical literacy inquiry stance, we still feel this learning structure has great potential and hope to use it as part of presearch with another project.  What types of presearch learning activities or structures have you tried to nudge students’ thinking about topics related to a particular theme or to grow how they conceptualize a particular topic?

Writing Around Text on Text Effort 2: Unplugged Conversations for Inquiry, Participation, and Social Construction of Meanings

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This past Friday, my fellow librarian Jennifer Lund and I had another opportunity to help facilitate written conversations about texts using the strategies we learned in the Harvey Daniels workshop we attended in December 2013.    Emily Russell, a teacher and Language Arts Department Chair we’ve collaborated with regularly this past year, and her students have been reading the memoir The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.  When she came to us for ideas for helping students transact with the text and their peers, we shared some of the strategies from the Daniels workshop as well as the write around text on text strategy we did with Darryl Cicchetti.

One of our reflections from our work with Darryl is that we think it would helpful to scaffold the write around text on text strategy by first giving students the opportunity to do the “silent literature circle letters.”  In this strategy, students can work in pairs or small groups of 3-4 (no more than 4) to have a conversation about a text or question through timed letter writing.  You can begin by having students write silently for 3-4 minutes and then swapping letters ( which can be written on notebook paper or large index cards) and writing again for bursts of 3-4 minutes.   Depending on how many people are in a group, this could go back and forth between pairs or you could simply write around the small group until everyone had a chance to respond to each other.  This can then be followed-up with small group discussion about the ideas and points they wrote on paper before moving to a large group share.  Emily did this with her three classes at the beginning of the week before coming down to the media center on Friday to do the write around text on text.

On Thursday, students used the same template we used with Darryl’s classes to have students identify a passage that stood out to write2them as well as questions they had about that chunk of text.  Some students chose brief and specific  passages; others chose large extended sections spanning 2-3 pages.  Most students chose something in the middle about a paragraph or so in length.  At the end of each period, Emily sent those down to the media center along with a roster of groups she selected to help us organize for Friday.  Just as I did with Darryl, I made copies of the passages on colored paper and then affixed them to large sheets of butcher paper.  Because our copier machine has been broken for two weeks, I used the ScannerPro app and then exported the PDFs of the passages to Evernote for printing.  This process moved fairly quickly although it would have been faster if I had access to a printer configured for Airprint.  The other aspect that was different this time was using colored butcher paper—that had been my original intent for the first time with Darryl’s students, but because I didn’t specify colored paper, our library student helpers assumed I wanted white paper.  This time I was sure to go with them and to be specific about colors I wanted.  While that sounds like a minor point, Emily’s students immediately commented about the colors and that they liked that when they first entered the library on Friday.  One other thing I did differently out of necessity with time constraints that come with doing prep work for more sections—I simply wrote group names on butcher paper with a black Sharpie instead of making the pretty group nametags in PowerPoint that I did last time.

This time we met in our area of the library that has eight rectangular tables and a screen for project rather than the rotunda area we used with Darryl’s classes.  We felt this would help us get groups together more quickly and help us avoid dealing with the horrific acoustics that plague our rotunda area of the library (as in a whisper echoes loudly across the entire space—it is akin to being in a cave when you are trying to talk to someone in this part of our library, a problem we’re working to address or at least mitigate). write4 As Emily’s students arrived, she, Jennifer, and I instructed them to find their table by looking for their name on the butcher paper on the tables; we also had the group rosters up on a slide we projected onto a screen.   We reviewed the instructions for the write-around text on text, took time to answer any questions, and then instructed students to jump in as we told them we’d write for about 10-12 minutes, and we’d alert them when time was up.  Just as we did with Darryl’s classes, we circulated among the groups, observing, photographing, and videoing; we also answered any questions students had, and Emily also jumped in and actively participated in the written conversations with students as well.

In reality, each class actually wrote for 20 minutes!  Because they were so into what they were doing, we did not want to break the flow.  It was interesting to note some differences in how these students engaged in the activity compared to our first group with Darryl.

  • None of the classes seemed confused about the directions and immediately jumped into the activity.  Because we had the hindsight of offering this kind of scaffolding and had already seated the students by their groups, we think these steps helped minimize any confusion.
  • There was less oral conversation doing the write-around time (which Daniels advocates as silent writing time) and less socializing; when students did converse, it was done so in a quiet manner and was related specifically to the text or the activity.
  • Students were able to write for a longer sustained time period (roughly 20 minutes vs. 10 or so minutes).
  • Students wrote more responses directly to the text as well as to each other; we have not yet coded the responses for every group yet (this will take some time as there are approximately 25 groups total to code), but I suspect from what I read and saw Friday that we’ll see some different patterns in terms of response type, volume, and depth from our first group in December.
  • Students seemed very organic in their work—on their own, each class began drifting to other tables and seemed intentional in trying to make their way to every table at least once.  We did not tell them to do this; in fact, with Darryl’s students, we had asked them to focus just on their group (this decision seemed practical at the time since each group was reading a different book whereas Emily’s students had this common text/book).    It was truly fascinating to  see them make their way around to each table; many also revisited tables to do follow-up responses other peers might have left.  Consequently, we saw more of a trajectory in the written conversations that reflected more of a dialogue between various students.
  • Out of three classes, there were only two students I observed who seemed to struggle with full engagement.  I was honestly struck by how focused and intent students seemed during the quiet write-around piece of the activity.  There was definitely a synergy of thought that was truly awe-inspiring to just stand back and watch.

These differences in my mind are not “bad” or “good”,  but in many ways reflect not just the difference in scaffolding, but to a larger degree, the fact that Emily’s students as a whole have had more opportunities in their past K-9 experiences to engage in group or collaborative activities.  Students who are tracked into what are considered “lower” level courses are often confined to write5solitary activities involving worksheets and silence; hence, when they are given the opportunity to do more interactive and collaborative work, teachers have to be patient in helping students work through the learning curve students experience as they learn the social and academic skills they need for these kinds of participatory learning experiences.   I am thankful for teachers like Darryl who want to disrupt that norm and give these students the same kinds of learning opportunities as “Honors” or other “higher” level classes.

We then gave students time to debrief and process in small groups when the 20 minutes was up.   We told them they could talk about one or more of the following:

  • The written conversations and specific pieces of those conversations on the butcher paper at their table
  • Ideas and conversations they had read at other tables
  • New insights, questions, or understandings from the process of reading others’ ideas

Each group appointed a recorder to capture the “big ideas” from the small group discussions that lasted about 5-7 minutes.  Emily and I walked about and listened in to each group; Emily used what she heard to help lead the big group discussion we then had the last 10 minutes of class, a time in which they tied together both ideas as well as literary aspects of the text that were highlighted in student written conversations.

Every class had an overwhelmingly positive response to the activity.   There was even a class in which students remarked aloud to both Emily and me that “we should be doing this more often!”  At the end of class, students shared what they liked about the write around text on text activity while asking ( very enthusiastically) if this was something they could do more regularly!   Other feedback from the students:

  • They enjoyed and appreciated hearing many student voices, something that sometimes gets silenced in traditional class discussions.
  • They liked being able to see different perspectives on their book; several remarked how the written conversations helped them see something they had not noticed about the book.  Others commented their perspective on a character or issue in the text had changed after reading the opinions and responses of their peers.  They were beginning to understand learning is social and how meaning can be constructed together.
  • Students liked the freedom in being able to move about and respond at their own pace during the write-around.
  • Students were focused on ideas, not grammar or spelling.
  • Everyone had opportunities to contribute to the discussion.
  • Students remarked that this activity was one that helped them think more critically and deeply.
  • Students were surprised by how fast the period seemed to go and that they had written as long as they did.
  • Some students remarked they loved the “freedom” of the space of the media center and being able to participate in the activity without feeling “confined” by the space constraints and seating arrangements of the traditional classroom (a point which we feel supports our vision of transforming our library into a learning studio for teachers and students!).

write3As I have reflected now on this second effort and experience of doing written conversations with students, a few thoughts have resonated with me over the weekend:

  • Activities that put inquiry and participation at the heart of the learner experience are the ones that will truly capture students’ minds and trust.  Sometimes this involves using technology; sometimes it does not.
  • Over the course of Media 21, Susan and I became more selective and strategic about our incorporation of technology as a medium or tool for learning; we saw that students often needed the “offline” experience of learning how to participate in a community of learners in a space that was not so public online and provided immediate, face to face feedback.  These experiences so far at NHS seem to parallel those with Creekview students.
  • These kinds of conversations that don’t involve technology or dialogue in an online space can be a scaffold for more public conversations; however, I increasingly worry about the fine line in not imposing a medium for learning that might not work for teen learners vs. how to respectfully their comfort level and skill in participating in virtual learning spaces.  I plan to revisit Shall We Play?, an outstanding document that addresses this very challenge of helping students cultivate new media literacies and the four Cs of participation.  I think their pedagogical model of scaffolding those 4Cs in both low-tech and high-tech contexts will help me better think how to negotiate these questions and challenges as we hope to expand our work with teachers and students to grow these conversations.
  • These questions and reflections in these excellent posts from Lee Skallerup (It’s About Class:  Interrogating the Digital Divide) and Jackie Gerstein (Is There a Digital Divide or an Intellectual-Pedagogical One?) also reflect my thinking and work from the trenches.  These are definitely worth your time to read and to ponder as I worry that schools and libraries are doing a lot of shallow pedagogical work just for the sake of saying they are “integrating technology” and embracing “digital learning” (what the heck do we even mean by that?).  I fear the emphasis on “technology integration” is trumping sound, thoughtful instructional design in too many classrooms and libraries.

I hope to do a follow-up post in the next ten days or so to share our findings of coding the student work.  For now, though, I hope that this post will be helpful to those interested in these strategies.    This past Friday was one of those magical days with students and teachers in which you get to watch learning in action–watching ideas blossom like a bud unfurling its petals still evokes pure joy after 21 years of teaching.  In a climate in which high stakes testing increasingly informs the experience of school and undercuts teachers’ autonomy in determining the most effective ways their students learn, I’m grateful for teachers like Emily and Darryl who put their students’ needs first and are willing to give them time, space, and opportunities to be active agents in their experiences as learners.   If you’d like to see more scenes from Friday, please visit my photo set housed here.  In addition, here are two videos (I promise to film from the horizontal perspective next time!) from Friday: